When Life Hands You Steak Knives
In a 1956 essay, Arthur Miller reduced every great play to one central element: "How may a man make of the outside world a home? How and in what ways must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside himself if he is to find the safety . . . the sense of identity and honor which, evidently, all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family?"
That is also an apt summation of the central theme of Miller's 1949 masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, receiving a solid production at STAGEStheatre. Because while the obvious conflict is between the haggard, defeated Willy Loman and his two sons, extending it out of the family dynamic and into society as a whole makes it about all men (and women), rather than merely one family. And that societal backdrop is America's greatest self-invented myth: the American Dream. Willy spends his life as a traveling salesman, peddling an unnamed product throughout New England, deluding himself into thinking that by making sales and gaining admiration through that endeavor, he'll achieve the dream. But when he's cast away like a piece of fruit, Loman realizes how hollow that pursuit has truly been. His son, Biff, a former high-school football star and now a 34-year-old drifter and ranch hand, is torn by his conflict over the dream, oscillating between following his father's path of being a cog in the corporate American machine and finding value through using his hands beneath the big, blue skies of the West.
Of course, there's a lot more going on in this play, both smaller and bigger. The smaller includes family secrets, a father's obsessive need to believe his sons are great men, a devoted wife's loving adoration of a man bordering on serious mental illness. The bigger includes the Loman clan wrapping itself in lies and delusions, unable or unwilling to take a clear, rational look at the sorry state of the ruptured fabric of the family. Death of a Salesman is, by any definition, a great play, probably the greatest American tragedy ever penned. And part of its brilliance is that instead of making the tragedy about a great man's fall from grace, it's about a very small man who never made much money, never got his name in the newspaper and never broke out of the shabby, restrictive life he chose.
It's also very sad, absolutely requiring strong acting in the four main roles, something this production fortunately possesses. While Joe Parrish's Willy seems a bit too eager to explode into physical rage, rather than suffocating from quiet desperation, he still effectively captures his character's hopelessness punctuated by grandiose illusion. Frank Tryon's Biff is remarkably nuanced, often saying more through facial expressions than actual words. Tryon is no stranger to local stages; anyone who has seen him perform Elvis Presley in the oft-produced The King is familiar with him. But this is his most serious role to date, and he skillfully rises to the opportunity. Cynthia Ryanen, another regular on local stages, proves once again that she is one of the county's finest character actors. Her role as Willy's long-suffering wife is often an afterthought amid all the masculinity of this play, but her Linda is a pivotal part of the machinery.
Less effective is the show's production. The scenic design, blocking and visual effects seems patched together and hurried; you can't help but think that's due in large part to the fact that Parrish not only is the lead, but also directs. The pivotal restaurant scene with supporting actors seems particularly harried. But this production does tell the story well enough, and that's the most important thing in any Salesman. Miller's play is often cited as a critique of the free-enterprise system; while Miller, a poster child for the post-World War II liberal elite, might not have disagreed with that assessment, it's more of a critique on those whose championing of that system creates a disconnect with people like Willy Loman, who just can't make the grade, for whatever reason.
In that respect, though there's a lot dated in this play (who the hell calls their mother and father "kid" any longer?), its timeliness is nothing short of eerie. When you look at a nation—and an economic system—drifting and hemorrhaging from seemingly every quarter, it's not hard to imagine millions of Willy Lomans out there, desperately believing the brass ring is still out there but unable to wake up to the reality it's just an illusion. You can blame the government, multinational corporations, the wizards of Wall Street, lazy entitlement addicts or anyone you want, but something is seriously amiss with the system. And Miller's heartbreaking portrait of a decent man chewed up and spit out by that system 61 years ago rings with a sobering caution as true today as it did then.
This review appeared in print as "When Life Hands You Steak Knives: STAGEStheatre's production of Death of a Salesman shows Arthur Miller's masterpiece is, even at 61, scarily relevant."
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